Skip to main content

The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2021 -- No. 4: The Michigan staff (pretty much all of 'em)

Jim Harbaugh's staff is almost entirely new -- to Michigan, to their roles, or both. Did he find the right mix to revitalize a stagnant program?

Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2021 season and beyond.

Who: The Michigan staff

Title: All of 'em

Previous stop: Everywhere

Why they're important: So, they're doing this again, aren't they? 

Michigan brought Jim Harbaugh back for a seventh season following a highly disappointing sixth, one in which the Wolverines were blown out by Indiana and Wisconsin, needed three overtimes to survive Rutgers, and were spared a likely trashing by Ohio State. 

Harbaugh comes back at roughly half his salary and far less expensive to fire. The school also supplied him with an almost entirely new staff.

-- Six of the 10 assistants are new.

-- Only two coaches (offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and D-line coach Shaun Nua) return to the same positions they coached in 2020.

-- Special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh is the only original staff member left.

And as Rainer Sabin pointed out for the Detroit Free Press in February, it is genuinely stunning how inexperienced this remade and retooled staff is.

-- 33-year-old defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has never coordinated a defense before.

-- 35-year-old offensive line coach Sherrone Moore has never been an O-line coach before.

-- Safeties coach Ron Bellamy, an elder statesman at 40, has never coached college football before.

-- Quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss has two years' experience at the position, as John Harbaugh's assistant QBs coach in 2016-17.

-- Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale is plenty qualified to oversee the secondary as a college DBs coach for the past 20 years, but he didn't get to Ann Arbor until May as a replacement for Mo Linguist, who took the Buffalo head coaching job. 

Add in that the starting quarterback will also be new and the 2021 Michigan team will be almost wholly unrecognizable from the predecessor. Except for the fact that, you know, the head coach is the same. 

But just because these guys haven't done it before -- at this level, in these jobs, or both -- doesn't mean they can't.

“You can feel the positive energy, the good vibes, when you walk into the building,” wide receiver Mike Sainristil said. “Practice is very fun. Our coaches have done a great job of making practice fun. Pre-practice, we have music going. During practice, there’s just juice flying all around. Guys are out there yelling, laughing, smiles on everybody’s faces. Practices have been really good with the energy we’ve had.”

Harbaugh said the same last week. "A lot of coaching going on," is how he termed it in Harbaugh-ese. 

Previous installments: No. 15: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech | No. 14: Travis Williams, UCF | No. 13: Liam Coen, Kentucky | No. 12: Jess Simpson, Miami | No. 11: Tim Banks, Tennessee | No. 10: Mike Bobo, Auburn | No. 9: Jeff Grimes, Baylor | No. 8: Mike Tressel, Cincinnati | No. 7: Mike Yurcich, Penn State | No. 6: Deland McCullough, Indiana | No. 5: Bill O'Brien, Alabama

Asked about the group at Big Ten media days, Harbaugh used the word "trust" seven times over the course of a 3-minute answer. That's a statement of where the staff is in 2021... and where it wasn't in 2020. 

On defense, Mike Macdonald is installing the scheme he brought with him from Baltimore, where the looks will be exotic and the pressure constant. "The secret sauce is that it's not that complicated, just different concepts layered together. We're trying to make the offense's QC a living nightmare," he said. 

Though it's Macdonald's scheme, it'll be the Michigan staff's defense, with a terminology and language all their own. 

"The dialogue in there is tremendous," Harbaugh said of his defensive staff. "And the other thing is really how they've come together, the trust. It's a really good room. It's almost like a scrimmage. Ideas are going on and getting talked through. Guys are able to speak their mind, they're able to be heard, and they get to a good result."

On offense, Gattis is back for a third season. The rest of the staff is familiar to Harbaugh and Michigan, if not each other. Weiss coached for Harbaugh back at Stanford, then for John in Baltimore. Running backs coach Mike Hart is a legendary Wolverine and a respected coach and recruiter in the Midwest. Moore has been on Harbaugh's staff since 2018, and Jay Harbaugh since the beginning. 

“Where we’ve come the farthest on offense is, there’s a real trust,” Harbaugh said. “The offensive coaches trust Josh and myself, and Josh trusts the other offensive coaches, respects them, thinks they’re good. Sherrone is good. Sherrone’s coaching the offensive line (and has) a lot of input in the run game. Same with Matt Weiss. Areas we need to improve — run, pass, it’s together. I’d like to stress that. The trust is there between the staff and Josh and Josh and the rest of the offensive staff.”

Harbaugh is a builder. He said so himself at his introductory press conference way back in 2014. He took a pretty good San Diego program and produced back-to-back 11-1 seasons in 2005-06. Stanford was the worst program in the Pac-12 when he got there and the No. 4 team in the country when he left. The 49ers went from 5-10 to the NFC championship game his first year with the club.

And he brought an immediate and sorely-needed identity to Michigan. Within two years of going 5-7 under Brady Hoke, Michigan was an inch away from a Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff. They were a game away again in 2018. The last two years represented an undeniable backslide. 

Now's the time for a fifth rebuild, with six new subcontractors hard at work on the remodel.